US should invest in relationships, not more guns
President Biden plans to increase defense spending by four percent annually through 2025, following a similar increase last year will not help the United States confront Russia or compete with China, and it may hurt the American economy.
Instead of spending more on the military, the Biden administration should empower allies and partners in achieving our common security objectives.
The Pentagon budget is already rife with waste, as four years of failed independent audits indicate. And despite claims from those who promote defense spending as a jobs creator, data shows that $1 billion spent in health care, education, or clean energy creates thousands more jobs than $1 billion spent on defense.
Defense spending also diminishes economic growth and undermines the American economy by adding to the deficit, which then contributes to rising interest rates (which are further increased by ongoing inflation). According to a recent Gallup survey, 42 percent of Americans have already rated the current economic conditions of the United States “poor.” Needlessly throwing more money at the Pentagon will only serve to further undermine those views.
Yearly increases in defense spending are unlikely to help the United States achieve its national security objectives vis-à-vis Russia or China in the next decade. As Vladimir Putin’s performance in Ukraine demonstrates, Russia’s military is currently more paper tiger than a tool for regional military domination. Military analysts note that Russian forces either misunderstand or are unable to execute fundamental tenets of modern warfare. They have suffered from communications, supply, weapons, and material failures throughout the conflict. Military tank and aircraft manufactures are reportedly unable to manufacture or repair tanks and airplanes because of international sanctions and must procure vital parts from Asia. Corruption in the Russian defense sector is widespread, which has undermined military effectiveness as well. American defense spending did not contribute to Putin’s problems — Russian military personnel were ill-equipped and improperly trained.
In Asia, there are no new weapons systems to deploy or new military bases to build that would fundamentally alter the military balance between the United States and China in the near future. Twenty years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq required the Pentagon to spend more on operations and maintenance than investing in new systems. This has stunted military modernization necessary to meet the emergent Chinese military. Even with its growing budget, any new defense programs are likely to take the U.S. military 15 years to deliver. If history is any guide (e.g. the F-35 program), new programs are likely to offer less capability and be more expensive than initially planned. By comparison, China’s military purchasing power parity, or PPP allows it to buy more arms systems and rapidly invest in new ones with 87 percent of the U.S. military budget.
China’s military strategy is to deter and/or defeat (American) military forces operating in the Taiwan Strait, and it’s now building the capacity to conduct offensive military operations in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. China’s “anti-access/area denial” (A2/D2) strategy annuls American military effectiveness in the first rounds of simulated conflicts close to its borders. China has invested in artificial intelligence to jam and blind the U.S. military systems employed in its joint warfighting concept. Biden’s additional defense spending is unlikely to bridge these procurement or strategic gaps, but it could exacerbate nuclear tensions by spurring an arms race.
Instead of spending more on defense, the Biden administration must improve American military purchasing power parity, and then empower its partners and allies in Europe and Asia to share the security burden. To fix military PPP, the Biden administration must decrease American outlays for military services. This could be achieved through improved oversight of $422 billion worth of open contracts the Pentagon maintains. Or the Pentagon could eliminate “cost-plus” contracts, which reimburse contractors for all their work and expenses, including an agreed-to margin of profit.
In response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, NATO and the EU convened to align members on the crisis and coordinate the international response. The EU increased defense expenditures so it can conduct modern military operations, and Germany is taking a more active role in regional security. More NATO members have pledged to meet their defense spending goals of two percent of GDP by 2024, and the organization is expanding its forward military presence to prepare for future threats. While working with NATO and the EU to expand their military capacity vis-à-vis Russia, the United States can deter Russia (with no added costs) by training partner military forces like those in Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltic states,
The Biden administration’s strategy for the Indo-Pacific relies on working with allies and partners though the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. But in surveys of ASEAN countries, 70 percent of respondents think ASEAN is slow and ineffective, unable to cope with changing political and economic realities in Asia, and increasingly seized by U.S.-China competition. The Biden team needs to repair its rapport with ASEAN members and identify new avenues for cooperation. Many people surveyed in ASEAN countries also distrust China, but they report that economics and political will for global leadership are key indicators of trust. The Biden administration should focus its work there rather than on military spending.
U.S. leaders have taken as an article of faith that more defense spending means more security. But as American military purchasing power parity declined, so has the U.S. return on investment from its defense spending. Defense spending isn’t an efficient job creator, it doesn’t make the United States better at deterring Russian aggression and isn’t helping compete with China. Investing in friends and allies is proving to be a more effective tool for achieving common security ends in Europe, and military power is not the way to make friends in Asia. In an increasingly multipolar world, the United States must invest in a different kind of defense, one that empowers allies and partners around the globe both militarily and economically.